The Eustace Diamonds

Eustace DiamondsPoor Lizzie Eustace! Widowed after only a few months of marriage, she’s now left on her own to raise her infant son. And now the lawyers want to take away the diamonds her beloved husband gave her to be her very own. Or that’s what she would have everyone believe.

The third book of Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series tells of Lizzie’s fight to keep the diamonds while seeking out a new husband and a new life.

Teresa: So, Lizzie Eustace. Quite a character. Trollope’s narrator notes from the start that she’s a Becky Sharp type. She’s always looking out for herself and herself alone, whether that means stealing diamonds or stealing suitors. On the one hand, I can respect a woman standing up for herself, especially in a time when women had so few choices. But, on the other, Lizzie’s lies seemed so pointless. She’s well off without the diamonds and doesn’t seem all that attached to them until she’s asked to give them up. And eventually, her lies and manipulations start to do real harm. What did you think of Lizzie?

Jenny: I loved her! How could you not love her? I mean, she’s the perfect love-to-hate character, like Becky Sharp, like Undine Spragg. She is shallow, vain, greedy, ungrateful, backstabbing, a liar even when lies aren’t called for, and a Romantic — her dreams of a Corsair who will come and save her from her ordinary life make more trouble for her than almost anything else. Trollope points out over and over again that she doesn’t even really like to read for reading’s sake (what a sin!). There’s a hilarious passage where she’s trying to read a collection of Shelley’s poetry (she doesn’t understand it very well), and she memorizes a bit of it to impress people — but it’s a bit from the beginning, so people will know she didn’t read the whole thing. Later, says Trollope, she’ll be manipulative enough to understand that you have to memorize a bit from the middle.Yet Trollope keeps calling her “poor Lizzie”!

One thing Trollope says is that neither Lizzie nor Lucy Morris is the heroine of the novel. Who do you think earns that title?

Teresa: Lizzie is the kind of character that I love to read about but am very, very glad not to know.

I am genuinely puzzled by Trollope’s assertion that neither Lizzie nor Lucy is the heroine. So puzzled that I have to wonder whether Trollope altered his plans for another character over the course of the serialization. There are lots of great women in this book, but only Lizzie and Lucy get sustained and focused attention. I wonder if he means to refer to Glencora Palliser, but she offers little more than commentary and misguided sympathy. Women like Lady Linlithgow and Lady Greystock are able to wield some influence over events, but they don’t have their own plots. Perhaps Lucinda Roanoke’s role was meant to be larger. She has potential, given her stubborn independence. I loved her decision to simply not leave the room on the day of her wedding. Do you have a theory?

Jenny: I think Trollope’s assertion is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, actually. Lizzie, naturally, can’t be our heroine because she is just so awful. And Lucy, naturally, can’t be our heroine because… because she’s not pretty enough? Because she’s a governess? Because she doesn’t have rich relations? But she  is strong, loyal, intelligent, witty, and wise — everything a woman should be. Trollope calls Lucinda Roanoke a “heroine” because she is so beautiful. But she loses her reason because she comes so close to marriage with a man she despises. It’s a fantastic plot! But I think Lucy is our true heroine after all.

And what about a hero? The men in this book are not much to brag about. I have to admit that I don’t think Frank Greystock is good enough for Lucy (though not bad enough for Lizzie.) Lord Fawn and Lord George de Bruce Carruthers are pieces of work, too, in opposite ways. Have we got a hero at all? Mr. Camperdown, the indignant lawyer, perhaps?

Teresa: Good call on Trollope being tongue in cheek. Maybe Trollope is making a comment on what it means to be a heroine, just as the whole novel seems to address what makes a good (or bad) wife.

As for a hero, I don’t think the book has one. All the men are either sleazy or too easily manipulated. Frank Greystock is the best of them all, but I agree that he’s not good enough for Lucy. I could, however, sympathize with his plight, and I think he’s someone with the potential to become a truly good man. He can never bring himself to give up on Lucy, regardless of how strongly he’s tempted. With time, perhaps goodness will come more easily to him.

Jenny: I like your thought that Trollope is thinking through what it means to be a heroine. I also think he’s commenting (again! as he does so often) on the marriage market. When we have those long fox-hunting scenes, I see them as extended metaphors for the “chase” of courtship. Who has the money to be seated well or have an extra horse? Who has the spirit to stay right up with the hounds? Who knows the terrain, or knows the Master, or has the connections to be in at the kill? And, in many women’s case, a kill is not far off the mark. It’s telling that Lizzie Eustace loves the hunt: it’s all about possession and property for her

I also agree with your assessment of Frank. It reminds me of Phineas Finn in the last book we read — he, too, narrowly escaped temptation and did what was right, and so did Lady Glencora in the first of them. Perhaps in the Palliser series, Trollope is exploring temptation and duty and their consequences? I look forward to reading more about Phineas’s choices in our next book, Phineas Redux!

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 2 Comments

Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry

Important ArtifactsAt first glance, there’s nothing to tip readers off to the fact that this book is anything other than an auction catalog. The cover includes an auction date (Saturday, 14 February 2009) and the name of the auction house (Strachan & Quinn). And flipping through the pages reveals nothing more than a series of photographs and item descriptions with lot numbers. There’s a pair of linen napkins, embroidered with the initials L and H. There’s a set of stained and worn tea towels, a collection of five small rocks, a heart-shaped ice cube mold, and lots of handwritten notes, vintage clothing, and books, often with notes laid in.

important artifacts sunglasses

Harold and Lenore’s Sunglasses

Author (and compiler) Leanne Shapton uses these objects to tell a story of a relationship from beginning to end. Through these images and descriptions, we learn about what sorts of people Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris are, and we watch their relationship grow and decline. The story itself is not too unusual. Lenore writes a food column for The New York Times, focusing on baking. Harold is a freelance photographer whose work takes him all over the world. Harold is approaching 40, while Lenore is in her 20s. They meet in 2002 at a Halloween party thrown by some mutual friends, and by Thanksgiving, they’re starting to fall in love. They exchange notes and gifts, they travel and go to plays together, they read the same books. And by 2006, they’re exchanging notes about how they hope they can be friends.

The objects collected here show how the relationship evolved over time. The early pages show random gifts that required thought and effort. Harold sends eleven postcards from his three-week trip to England in December 2002. Lenore (sort of) declares her love in an inscription on the cover page of a 1970 edition of  the May Sarton novel, Kinds of Love. They make big and small romantic gestures and seem thoroughly swept up in each other. But even then, the relationship isn’t without bumps. Harold has to apologize for his reaction to the meringue Lenore made him for his 40th birthday—”I’ve always loathed meringue and thought I’d mentioned it. It looked great!” And little notes and letters express doubts about the relationship. But this all seems natural enough. As the book goes on, the number of romantic gestures go down, and gifts are pegged to birthdays and Christmas. The objects are less about falling in love and more about sharing life together. There’s a metal cup for toothbrushes and a pair of bedside lamps. And there’s a backgammon board charred at the edges, having been thrown in the fireplace during a fight.

 

Shoes, a Broken Cup, and a Chocolate Box

His and Her Shoes, a Broken Cup, and a Chocolate Box

I tend to love epistolary novels and books that collect documents and other ephemera from life, so I found this a compelling way to tell a story that isn’t necessary compelling on its own. Any hum-drum story can elevated to something special if the author knows how to tell that story—and that’s the case even when an author uses traditional techniques. But the nice thing about telling a story through stuff is that it reveals so much about what the characters are like without crowding the narrative with what seem like extraneous details, such as brand names and book titles. Taking all of these objects and incorporating them into a traditional narrative would make for an obnoxious narrative about a pretentious couple that’s working too hard to be quirky and unique with their vintage swimsuits and oddball collectibles.

Shapton does well at maintaining her conceit all the way through the book, this kind of storytelling requires some compromises to make the story complete. It’s best not to think much about how this collection of objects came to be. Why, for instance, are there so many e-mail printouts? The ones with additional notes and directions handwritten on them make sense, but some seemed to be included only to advance the story. And the mail doesn’t run quickly enough for some of the letter exchanges when Harold was overseas to actually work. But such compromises were rare enough to keep the book from feeling like a cheat. I’d rather see a few little fudges like these than frequent annotations to explain the story in more detail.

If you appreciate nontraditional storytelling approaches, this is worth seeking out. And I’d love your suggestions for similar books!

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 6 Comments

Life and Fate

life and fateI recently spent three weeks in France with students (it was wonderful, thank you!) Normally when I go on this trip, I bring a large variety of books on my Kindle, so I’ll have something to read for any occasion. This time, I decided to try something different: just a couple of very long books, something I knew I’d really be able to burrow into during my airplane rides and my spare time, such as it was.

Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman, is a monumental novel. Grossman wrote it in 1960, but it takes place during the second World War, mostly in Russia, and partly in Germany as well. It’s broken into three parts, each of which looks at the fate of the large Shapashnikov family and the people they care about; the siege of Stalingrad; and life in the camps — either Russian prisoner-of-war camps, or German death camps.

There’s a huge, sprawling cast of characters in this book, but Viktor Shtrum stands out as one of the most important. Viktor is a theoretical nuclear physicist, obsessed with his work. The evacuation of Stalingrad has sent him, his family, and his colleagues to Kazan, and this upset has made him more aware than ever of the overwhelming effect of Stalinist policy and practice on his science. With his wife Lyudmila Shapashnikova and his daughter Nadya at home, he must navigate the weight of terror: are his findings Stalinist enough? Do they have an application for the State? Did he make a careless statement in front of the wrong person — something that will mean a permanent loss of funding and staff, or even exile for his entire family? Will his fierce devotion to his science mean torture and death? Shtrum is Jewish, and in the early 1940s he is just beginning to sense that Jews — even educated, scientific Jews who work for the government — may have a bad time of it in Communist Russia.

Though there aren’t many people having a good time of it, to be honest. Grossman follows the wanderings of Viktor Shtrum’s extended family and their many lives and fates: Lyudmila’s son Tolya from her first marriage, who dies in the siege of Stalingrad; her first husband Abarchuk, who has been taken to the gulag for his political opinions; Lyudmila’s sister Yevgenia, who is trying and failing to get a housing permit; their family friend Sofya Levinton, a doctor who is arrested and taken to a German death camp hand in hand with a little abandoned boy. We see soldiers at the front, starving and fighting and trying to keep Stalingrad protected from a huge wave of Germans. We see them again later, attacking the Germans in a giant, invincible pincer movement, triumphant at last — and paying the cost.

Grossman posits through his characters the radical idea that Communism and Fascism are mirror images of each other. He shows how the blind devotion of the people to Stalin and to the Party has excused “servility, treachery, submissiveness, cruelty” as the “birthmarks of capitalism.” They all believe that you don’t get arrested if you haven’t done anything, until it happens to them. He references many crimes on both sides committed through idealism, and he writes a long dialogue between a Nazi officer and a devotedly Communist prisoner of war, Mostovskoy, in which the officer tries to convince his prisoner that the two totalitarian states are nearly identical.

To build Socialism in one country, one must destroy the peasants’ freedom … Stalin didn’t shilly-shally — he liquidated millions of peasants. Our Hitler saw that the Jews were the enemy hindering the German National Socialist movement. And he liquidated millions of Jews.

(Naturally, this point of view was not at all popular in 1960, in the aftermath of Stalin’s death. When Grossman submitted it for publication, the KGB raided his apartment, and took not only the manuscript and carbon copies, but even the typewriter ribbons it had been typed with.)

Grossman’s theory is that human kindness — tiny acts of kindness, meaningless kindness, kindness even between enemies — is the only thing that can stand up to the crushing power of totalitarianism. Because Communism and Fascism only concern themselves with the good of the State and the masses, individual relationships go unnoticed and can survive even dire conditions. Some of the most deeply touching passages in the book are about these little kindnesses: Sofya leading little David into the gas chamber so he won’t be alone; Viktor Shtrum’s mother’s last letter to him; Lyudmila distributing gifts to the surgeons who failed to save her son. There is a thread in the book that relates this idea to Viktor Shtrum’s science: Newtonian and Euclidean science, he says, were about individual acts. Today’s science of quantum mechanics and string theory is a science of aggregates. This matches up with our tendency toward totalitarianism, in which only the good of the masses matters. But if human kindness can survive even these horrors, then we will win in the end.

Personally, I’m not so sure. Human kindness and decency is easy to stamp out in the camps and the gas chambers; personal dignity goes by the wayside when people are trying to survive. This isn’t judgment. I would certainly act that way myself if I didn’t give up in the first ten minutes. I prefer an ethics that says: I know people will go very low, but even at their lowest they are still worthy of love and respect and forgiveness.

In the end of Life and Fate — a novel that is by anyone’s standards very sad indeed — Grossman gives us a tiny taste of hope. An anonymous couple with a child steps out of the rubble to start a new life in the countryside. Life goes on, in fact; and human kindness and decency have survived, at least in this one granular instance. After 900 pages of fear, death, starvation, grim humor, longing, and the sharp critique of Stalin’s Russia, is this secondary Eden compelling? It might not be in theory, but it’s a breath of air we never thought we’d taste again, and it’s a bewilderingly lovely ending for a very dark book.

I read several reviews that compare Life and Fate to War and Peace, and of course the surface comparisons to Tolstoy are obvious. I believe that Grossman himself, however, would prefer a comparison to Chekhov:

Just try and remember all Chekhov’s different heroes! Probably only Balzac has ever brought such a mass of different people into the consciousness of society. No- not even Balzac. Just think! Doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers, lecturers, landlords, shopkeepers, industrialists, nannies, lackeys, students […] Chekhov brought Russia into our consciousness in all its vastness — with people of every estate, every class, every age… More than that! It was as a democrat that he presented all these people — as a Russian democrat. He said — and no one had said this before, not even Tolstoy — he said that first and foremost we are all of us human beings. Do you understand? Human beings! He said something no one in Russia had ever said. He said that first of all we are human beings — and only secondly are we bishops, Russians, shopkeepers, Tartars, workers.

And this is the true purpose of Grossman’s book, even more than the theorizing about human kindness or Stalinism. He wants to write about a vast array of people, Russians and Ukrainians and scientists and grandmothers and small children and generals and prostitutes and clerks, because they are first and foremost human beings. This is what makes his book so well worth reading, and what’s made me keep thinking about it for weeks after I finished it. It’s a fairly major enterprise, but you won’t regret it: the people in its pages will engage and welcome you.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 3 Comments

LaRose

LaRoseLouise Erdrich has become one of my reliable authors, meaning that I can almost guarantee that I’ll get some pleasure out of anything of hers that I read. The Round House was one of my favorite books that I read last year, and although I didn’t love her newest novel quite as much, it may just end up on my best of list this year.

The novel focuses on two families, linked by their shared son, LaRose. Five years old in 1999 when the book begins, LaRose was born to Landreaux and Emmeline Iron. His best friend, Dusty, is the son of their neighbors, Peter and Nola Ravitch. These two families, previously linked by Nola and Emmeline relationship as half-sisters, become further bound together when Landreaux accidentally shoots and kills young Dusty Ravitch.

Beset by grief and guilt, Landreaux and Emmeline agree that Peter and Nola should have their son, following the old ways. The Ravitches agree, and LaRose’s presence gives them hope and comfort. LaRose, however, misses his birth family, and the two sets of parents agree that he should divide his time between the two homes. For years, the only thing the two families share is LaRose. He loves and is loved by both families and is at home in both the boisterous Iron home, full of older siblings, and the quieter Ravtich house, where he bonds with his older sister, Maggie.

As is typical of an Erdrich novel, the book’s scope reaches out to the wider community, both past and present. LaRose is a family name, and we meet the women who bore the name before this single boy was given it. The LaRoses of the past seemed to have special strength and insight, and the young LaRose appears to as well, but without the obnoxious precociousness that sometimes appears among fictional children who are wise beyond their years.

One of my favorite storylines involved Maggie’s growing confidence. After being sexually assaulted by a group of boys at her school, Maggie withdraws into herself, initially telling no one but LaRose what happened. But she looks for a way out, and the confident girls from the Iron family help her find it. Connections and community matter. As do secrets. Many of the book’s characters harbor secret resentments or lusts or addictions, although not all of these secrets are as hidden as their bearers believe. Bringing those secrets out into the open seems to help with healing.

And healing, more than anything, is perhaps what this book is about. It’s ultimately a very hopeful book, about people finding strength and joy even after the worst of calamities. But that hope is not without its shadow. There’s the shadow of past injustice, residing in the stories of Indians forced to adopt white ways in boarding schools of prior generations. And there’s the shadow of future pain, as a young man finds hope in joining the National Guard at a time when joining the Guard did not (yet) necessarily mean getting shipped off to war. Those shadows keep the book grounded in reality without taking away from the joy to be found in the happy moments when people are able to find happiness together.

I received an electronic review copy of LaRose from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Posted in Fiction | 18 Comments

My Year of Meats

my year of meatsIn 2015, Ruth Ozeki’s Booker Prize-listed novel A Tale for the Time Being was one of Teresa’s books of the year. Since I trust Teresa’s taste absolutely, and since I’d heard lots of other good things about Ozeki as well, when I caught sight of My Year of Meats on the library shelf, I seized the day. (Carpe librum?)

In this novel, Jane Takagi-Little has nabbed a job as director of a Japanese reality show, My American Wife! This show, sponsored by BEEF-EX, is meant to introduce American beef to Japanese housewives by showing them attractive, normal (read: white, upper-class) American families eating delicious beef recipes each week. But Jane, an aspiring documentary filmmaker, has other ideas: she wants to show the full variety of American families — poor, multiracial, even vegetarian — and the tension between her shows and the executives at BEEF-EX grows as My American Wife! becomes ever more popular in Japan.

The point of view shifts between Jane and Akiko Ueno, the wife of one of these Japanese executives. Akiko’s husband, Joichi (“call me John”) is constantly angry with Akiko because she hasn’t gotten pregnant yet. She’s too thin — her menstruation has stopped — and he encourages her to make each of the My American Wife! recipes and eat them, to put some meat on her bones. (See what I did there?) Over time, however, as Jane’s subversion grows, so does John’s anger, and he takes it out on Akiko both emotionally and physically. Her slow revelation — that she wants a child, but not a husband; that she wants a happy life — is transformational.

As Jane films the various episodes of the show — the one where the husband turns out to be cheating on his American Wife, the one where the family has six adopted children, the one where they serve Australian lamb chops instead of beef, the one with the vegetarian lesbians — she learns more and more about the state of meat, especially beef, in the United States. Jane finds out about the hormones, steroids, preservatives, and other chemicals that routinely find their way into American beef; she visits a slaughterhouse; she sees the ghastliness that is an Oklahoma feedlot. Along the way, she begins to understand some of the effects that these chemicals have had on her own body, and to live in a kind of anguished fear for her future. As these fears increase, her priorities shift: from wanting to tell the stories of the families, she begins to want to tell the story of the beef itself.

This is a book about authenticity. Jane is biracial, half Japanese, half white, and she constantly feels pressure to say what she “really” is and what culture she belongs to — particularly from her Japanese mother. Her television episodes become increasingly authentic, despite pressure from her employers to tell the narrative they want told. Her love for her boyfriend, Sloan, becomes more real and intimate, even with several painful mistakes and detours along the way. Akiko gropes toward a more authentic life, no matter what it may cost her, while her husband continues to try to force both her life and his into his preconceived ideas. Both Jane and Akiko read, and are connected by, Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, with its lists of “Awful Things,” “Things of Beauty,” “Things that Give an Unclean Feeling,” and so on. The clean lines of this far-away woman’s thoughts give a tone of intimacy to the novel that transcends time.

And then, of course, there are the cows. Shot full of chemicals, fed plastic and concrete dust for cheap roughage, slaughtered in a terrifying assembly (or, rather, dissembly) line, it’s implied that they are not actually authentic cows at all. Ozeki takes a few detours to talk about chicken and pork as well, but like BEEF-EX with its “Pork is Possible, but Beef is Best” slogan, she focuses on the cows, and most readers of My Year of Meats will learn a lot before it’s over. It’s not even so much a question of knowledge, either; most of us know that these things exist in the world. It’s a question of awareness, of wanting to know. Of authenticity. Of what comes next.

In Ozeki’s version, what comes next is truth, and where there’s truth, there can be a life of peace. Both Jane and Akiko, in their different ways, tell their truths, and find a thread of hope they can follow to the future. It may not be a future they had ever imagined for themselves — it is a new world, full of uncertainty — but it has joy, relationship, and support they couldn’t have imagined either. This is a deeply interesting novel — funny, poignant, serious, farcical, hopeless and hopeful. It told story after story, and it made me want to read more.

Posted in Fiction | 14 Comments

Interior Darkness

interior darknessI haven’t read any Peter Straub for a long time. His Magic Terror left me cold, and when I followed that too closely by Houses Without Doors, I gave up on him altogether (but not without a loud complaint.) Still, I’ve read things by Straub I liked very much — Julia is a terrific horror novel — and after eight years, I thought he and I might come to terms. When I saw his recent collection of stories, Interior Darkness, on the library shelf, I tossed it in the bag.

I’ve said this before, but — if you bought a bag of apples, and only a quarter of them were any good, you’d take the bag back to the store. If you bought a lawn mower, and it only cut the grass a quarter of the time (or worse, only cut a quarter of your blades of grass), you’d think something was very wrong with your lawn mower. But stories are not like apples or lawn mowers. I’ll slog through dull stories and silly stories and disgusting stories in order to get to just… one story that really blows my mind. The rest can be dreck for all I care (though I will certainly take as many wonderful stories as I can get!)

In this case, out of the sixteen stories in Interior Darkness, there was one that was interesting because of its form (“A Short Guide to the City”), one that was interesting because it was so, so hallucinatory and weird — I’m still not exactly sure what happened in it, but I am certain it was deeply unpleasant (“The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine”), and one that was actually pretty good (“Little Red’s Tango”). In this last one, Straub allows his obsession with the torment of small children and the mockery of fat people to die away, and his love for jazz comes through. The entire story shines with it. It’s the one story that, although it is suffused with something supernatural (or at least odd) there is always the sense that we are safe; jazz will save us, because jazz is love.

The rest of the stories are negligible. Dull, often, or confusing, or quite extraordinarily repetitive. They are also, mostly, not traditional horror: they are, as the title of the book suggests, interior darkness: extreme cruelty, torture, the molestation of children, madness (and not in a good, give-you-chills way.) I won’t be reading Straub again. But I’m glad I read “Little Red’s Tango”. It was a decent farewell.

Posted in Fiction, Short Stories/Essays, Speculative Fiction | 4 Comments

Crazy Brave

crazy braveJoy Harjo is a Native American (Creek) poet and musician. I’ve encountered her poetry in a couple of different contexts, and it’s always tough and interesting, so I wasn’t surprised when her 2012 memoir, Crazy Brave, was not your usual memoir.

For one thing. Harjo begins before she is even born, “traveling high above the earth,” in a scene when she comes alive through her mother’s transcendent singing. She honors the path she takes from her ancestors to her current life, her own stubbornness, her act of choice, the voices that have always surrounded her. This sense of knowing — knowing her past, knowing her way, knowing more than she has any right to know — suffuses  Harjo’s memories. When she ignores that cloud of witness, she suffers; when she listens, she goes according to the way her spirit needs to go, and — sometimes she still suffers. But it’s better.

Harjo tells the story of her early childhood with her beautiful Creek mother, who introduced her to all kinds of music and to singing, and her alcoholic, Irish father, who showed her an unpredictable, angry love and then left her. In one chapter, Harjo describes her last memories of her father. There are two versions. In one, her father makes peach ice cream, and the family “ate of the sweetness until we could eat no more.” In another, her father drank until he became angry, because of his mother’s death when he was a baby, because of his father’s violence against him, and because “he was treated like an Indian man in lands that were stolen away along with everything else.” Which story is true? Both. Harjo never simply recounts childhood suffering. She shows the way every soul is connected to every other — including the deep history of this country and those ancestors — and lets the suffering mean something.

Later comes the story of her abusive stepfather, who stifled her creativity for years into her adolescence, and how she finally escaped him by going to study art at the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. There she learned about the power of theater to make literature come alive, and the way story in action can be transformational. She became pregnant, and followed her baby’s father to Tahlequah, Oklahoma, to raise the baby in extreme poverty. The rise of Native American civil rights shook her out of a daze, and she left that man for another —  one who beat her. She couldn’t find the courage to get free until, as she says, she “embraced poetry,” following her understanding that her depthless panic attacks would never stop until she learned to express what was in her heart.

The memoir is divided into four parts, East, North, West, and South, as a calling of the directions of sacred balance. There are poems, stories, and tribal myths woven throughout it, so seamlessly that if you’re a person who really likes to know exactly what you’re reading at any given point, you will be a little bewildered. But this tapestry is a rich one. This book has so much to say in only about 150 pages that I was sorry, and surprised, to find it ending. Read Crazy Brave, or some of Harjo’s poetry — or, better, both.

Posted in Memoir, Nonfiction | 2 Comments

The Letter of Marque

The_Letter_of_Marque_coverThe 12th book in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series opens with Jack not being quite himself, having been dismissed from the Royal Navy on false charges. On many counts, he’s lucky. In The Reverse of the Medal, his friends made sure he didn’t have to suffer public humiliation. And Stephen has purchased the recently decommissioned Surprise for Jack to captain as a letter of marque (essentially a private ship). But being a Navy man was a crucial part of Jack’s identity, and he hopes to find a way back in.

Captaining a private ship has some advantages. Men can’t be pressed into service, so everyone on the ship wants to be there. And Lucky Jack Aubrey is someone volunteers want to serve under, in hopes that they can benefit from his luck and get a share of valuable prizes. And the arrangement is successful. Jack is as capable a captain as ever, and he has reason to hope his good work will be rewarded with a return to the Navy.

The first part of this book was duller than some of the others in the series. I had a hard time getting interested in the missions themselves, although of course I wanted Jack to do well. As is often the case, the specific details of the encounters with enemy ships weren’t always easy to follow. (It’s why I often prefer the books set on land.) And there wasn’t a lot of the personal interaction that I enjoy from this series. There is an especially intense attack on a French ship in which Jack is injured. The operation to remove the bullet is one of the book’s more gripping scenes.

Another point of interest in the early part of the book is Stephen’s opium addiction. He comes up with an all-too-convenient argument about how medical men can be responsible about their doses, even given themselves an amount that would seem like a lot. All the while, he’s gradually being weaned of his addiction as his servant Padeen steals doses for himself and waters the remainder down with brandy. It’s heartening to watch Stephen recover without knowing what’s happening. But by the end of the book, his ignorance about the low doses becomes dangerous when he gets a fresh supply. And his new liking of coca leaves does not bode well for the future.

The last half of the book brings a return to land, and I found this much more enjoyable. At home in England, Jack is offered the reinstatement he so desires, but on terms he can’t bring himself to accept. A death in the family gives him a new status that may work to his advantage. For once, Jack doesn’t really bungle anything much in his time at home. I mean, you could say he bungled the deal to get back in the Navy, but I say he took a principled stand. If, as Stephen says later, it had been presented to him differently, he might have made another choice.

Stephen, meanwhile, must try and repair his marriage with Diana, and so he goes to Sweden to proclaim his faithfulness, despite rumors to the contrary. This part of the book was maybe a little too easy, but Stephen deserves some happiness. I’m just not convinced that the happiness will last. But I like that Diana is not made out to be a bad person, just a very independent one. It remains to be seen whether she’s too independent for a happy marriage with Stephen. Then again, maybe a marriage to a man so often at sea is the perfect thing! I’ll continue to be interested in seeing how their relationship evolves.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 2 Comments

The Moon and Sixpence

Moon and SixpenceThis 1919 novel by W. Somerset Maugham is ostensibly a biography in which an unnamed narrator attempts to shed light on the life of the mysterious artist Charles Strickland (a character based on Paul Gauguin). Although he’s stretching the truth when he says, “I knew him more intimately than most,” he did know Strickland personally at a key moment in his career. However, much of what he knows about him, he came to know second-hand, sometimes through stories from people who the narrator himself admits are unreliable.

Thus, this novel is, to a small degree, a demonstration of the problem of biography. The narrator/author has firsthand knowledge of his subject, but that knowledge is limited, and so he must fill in the gaps. He notes that “I find myself in a position to throw light on just that part of his tragic career which has remained the most obscure.” Yet it is just this part of his career that the author knows only secondhand. But perhaps those early years, when he knew him better, are more important anyway, if it’s important at all to know the life behind the work.

Strickland did not initially appear to have the makings of a great artist. His biographer gets to know him only because his wife has made an effort to surround herself with literary talents. Her banker husband seems dull, but pleasant enough. So it was a shock to everyone when he suddenly took off for Paris. Rumor had it that he had run off with a mistress, but the truth was that he just wanted to paint. And paint he did, although hardly anyone was impressed with his talent. The only person who sees much potential in Strickland’s art is a fellow painter who doesn’t like Strickland much but takes the man under his care anyway, much to his later regret.

Besides being a painter of not much note, Strickland is also entirely selfish and oblivious to the needs of others. He leaves his wife without a moment’s concern. He takes another man’s wife without a twinge of conscience. He asks for loans, meals, and cigarettes without ever giving a thought of reciprocating. The narrator says that

To my mind the most interesting thing in art is the personality of the artist; and if that is singular, I am willing to excuse a thousand faults.

But would Strickland’s “singular” personality be in any way worthy of note if he hadn’t produced art that someone later deemed to be a work of genius? At best, most of Strickland’s acquaintances grimly tolerate him. It’s only after his art becomes notable that anyone considers him as anything other than an ordinary asshole. After his art becomes valuable, even his abandoned wife rethinks her view of him, pretending that he didn’t leave her and their children on the edge of financial ruin. His final years in Tahiti are treated as artistic excess, but there’s little interest in how his young wife and servants really feel about him and about their life. What little we know comes at third- and fourth- hand, often from people who are interested in impressing the curious Englishman who’s asking about Strickland.

As for the art itself, it is unsettling and strange, and hardly anyone likes it at first glance. Many never come to like it, but some do find it compelling. The narrator says of Strickland’s paintings:

They were strangely unsettling. They gave me an emotion that I could not analyze. They said something that words were powerless to utter. I fancy that Strickland saw vaguely some spiritual meaning in material things that was so strange that he could only suggest it with halting symbols. It was as though he found in the chaos of the universe a new pattern, and were attempting clumsily, with anguish of soul, to set it down. I saw a tormented spirit striving for the release of expression.

Good art isn’t always pleasing, and, from this, it sounds like Strickland is making good art. There’s something in it. The crude lines and off-kilter coloring point to something bigger. But does it? Or is the narrator reacting to the posthumous praise of Strickland’s work and attempting to see something in it that isn’t there?

How do we assess art? Or a life? Or the interplay between the two? Those are the questions of this book, and they’re never answered. They’re too complicated to answer in just 200 pages. But I don’t think we’re meant to take the narrator’s assessments at face value. If so, this would be a really dull book. (And, as it is, I’m glad that it was a short book. It couldn’t have sustained my interest for much longer than it did.)

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 2 Comments

Avatar: The Comics

If anyone had told me five years ago that an animated Nickelodeon show would become one of my favorite TV shows ever, I’d have had a hard time believing it. I don’t consider myself too grown-up for animation or anything like that. I just wouldn’t expect an animated show on a kid-oriented network to achieve the kind of sophistication and complexity I find in my favorite TV shows. And although I enjoyed Avatar: The Last Airbender from the start, it took a while for it to become a favorite. But once it did, sometime during the second season, I was well and truly hooked. It’s a show that, like so many of my favorites, put the characters first and stretches them so that they find their strength and their true selves. And when it was over, I wanted more.

It may, in fact, be telling that I was more interested in reading the comic-book follow-ups for Avatar that I was in the ones for Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. But I attribute that mostly to the fact that Buffy’s story seemed to be complete. The Avatar story, on the other hand, had gaps that I wanted to see filled.

The first volume of the Avatar comics was a curious and highly uneven collection called The Lost Adventures. These are mostly short stories that occur during the time of the original series. My understanding is that many of them were published with the DVD. They were … not great. Most of them were one-joke vignettes that focused on the show’s comedy elements, rather than the more serious character development.

The three graphic novel trilogies that I read, on the other hand, were excellent—exactly what I wanted. Written by Gene Luen Yang with series creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and with art by Gurihiru, these books take place in the period after the animated series and before the sequel series, The Legend of Korra, which picks up the story with a new generation.

The first, The Promise, takes place immediately after the defeat of the Fire Nation, with Zuko having to decide what kind of leader he’ll be as the new Fire Lord. He asks Avatar Aang to help ensure that he doesn’t become a despot like his father. But as the complications of independence for the former colonies becomes evident, that promise becomes more difficult to keep. This book is a great example of how the series balances big political questions about how to govern with personal questions of how to be a good person and a good leader. Zuko, Aang, and Toph all have to grapple with this as they each take on a new leadership role.

The book I was most eager to read, The Search, came next. This book was really the reason I got these comics. The big question left unanswered at the end of the series was about the fate of Zuko’s mother, Ursa, and this book promised to answer it. To find the answer, Zuko decides he must get help from his sister, Azula, who has been imprisoned since the end of the war. Much of this book dwells on family and how difficult it is to put family relationships aside, even when those relationships aren’t good for us. Setting them aside comes at a cost. Ursa’s story is extremely painful because she felt she had to break those relationships, and she took drastic measures to do so. That aspect of the story was extremely satisfying, although I found some of the parallel relationships to be a little trite in comparison.

And, finally, I read The Rift, which addresses the tension between tradition and progress as Aang and Toph find themselves on opposite sites of a dispute about a factory built on what was once ground sacred to the airbenders. Probably the best part of this book was seeing Toph’s reunion with her father. It was also fun to see that she had a fan in the young engineer Satoru. The principal conflict itself didn’t interest me as much as others in the series, but I think it’s because the stakes didn’t seem all that high. I could appreciate the characters’ dilemmas, but this wasn’t a conflict that had been building over years.

I enjoyed these books, but I’m not sure I’ll read the others. For now, at least, my desire for more of this story is satisfied. But I’m glad to know there’s more in the works if I want it. (And there are still a couple of seasons of Korra I can watch as well.)

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Graphic Novels / Comics, Speculative Fiction | 2 Comments